August 31, 2012

Finally, Mitt Romney shook the Etch a Sketch.

Having given conservatives everything they had asked for — from switching his positions on abortion and immigration to picking their favorite as his running mate — Romney turned Thursday night to his essential task: converting some President Obama’s 2008 supporters into Republican voters.

At a convention where the rhetoric was harsh and often indifferent to facts, Romney took the path of quiet persuasion. For the most part, he chose not to speak to the fervor and anger of political activists on the Right. He addressed instead less-partisan voters he hopes will be open to his candidacy by virtue of their disappointment with the man who had inspired them four years ago.

“Hope and change had a powerful appeal,” Romney said in the speech’s key passage. “But tonight I’d ask a simple question: If you felt that excitement when you voted for Barack Obama, shouldn’t you feel that way now that he’s President Obama? You know there’s something wrong with the kind of job he’s done as president when the best feeling you had was the day you voted for him.”

In a sense, the appeal Romney re-launched here was the argument he had hoped to make from the beginning — that the election was primarily an exercise in judging the incumbent’s stewardship and, in particular, a painfully slow economic recovery.

Romney’s turn had been promised last March by his veteran aide Eric Fehrnstrom, who provided his boss’s foes with a useful metaphor for describing the ease with which the candidate has altered his positions on a long list of issues.

After the primary campaign, Fehrnstrom argued, “everything changes,” and he added: “It’s almost like an Etch a Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again.”

Romney knew that what he most had to shake was a personal image tainted by an impression of inconstancy on issues; attacks on his record in business both by his primary foes and the Obama campaign; and off-the-cuff comments that suggested a great distance between his own experience and the lives of most of the voters whose support he needs.

Speaking a few hours before Romney’s address, Andrew Kohut, head of the Pew research Center, said the surveys pointed to three imperatives for Romney: He had to make himself more likable, more credible and more empathetic.

Thus the unusual amount of detail Romney provided about his family and history. Thus the long narrative about Bain Capital, aimed at changing the impression of a heartless business past that has reduced Romney’s appeal to blue collar voters. Such voters do not celebrate investors and employers with the same ebullience that greeted every mention of the private sector at this convention. The burden of having to tell his personal story fell heavily on this speech: It took up space and time and left the speech very thin on ideas and policy.

Romney hit few ideological hot buttons, and he broke little new ground. His philosophical core is clearly defined by his promise of a pro-business administration that would seek to create jobs by giving investors and CEOs what they want. He continued to paint Obama as lacking understanding of private sector. “Jobs to him are about government,” he said.

Once again, Romney showed that his campaign will launch attacks with little regard for their veracity. “Unlike President Obama,” he said, “I will not raise taxes on the middle class.” While the definition of the “middle class” is flexible, Obama has in fact asked Congress to retain current tax rates for families earning less than $250,000 a year.

“I will begin my presidency with a jobs tour,” Romney also said. “President Obama began with an apology tour.” There was no apology tour. And Romney suggested that Republicans had been initially eager to work with the president, when in fact the party was determined from the beginning to oppose virtually all of Obama’s initiatives.

Romney’s was not a great speech, but it did at least familiarize those who heard it with aspects of his personal journey of which they were unaware. He is likely to get some bounce out of his convention, but it will be short-lived as media attention shifts abruptly to the Democrats’ conclave in Charlotte right after Labor Day.

And there will be a jarring contrast between the Romney who spoke of uniting the nation and his exceptionally harsh, relentless and divisive advertising campaign that includes factually-challenged spots on welfare plainly aimed at stirring resentment.

The stark disjunction will inevitably keep alive the question that his convention speech did not answer: Who is the real Romney?

ejdionne@washpost.com